Brad Underwood doesn’t want to talk about a Big Ten conference championship.
“Our guys aren’t dumb. They know what’s at stake,” he said yesterday, but added the team’s focus is “Ohio State, Ohio State, Ohio State.”
He prefaced all that by expressing relief that Duane Washington moved on to the G League while acknowledging that Washington’s replacement, Buckeye guard Malaki Branham, is “probably” the best freshman in the B1G.
Chris Holtmann still has his dynamic pair of undersized power forwards Kyle Young and EJ Liddell, two guys that have bugged Underwood throughout his Illini tenure. Young has taken on a sixth-man role this season, which provides Holtmann’s traditional 9-man rotation extra experience when the subs come in.
Sophomore wing Eugene Brown started the last four games. His role expanded when Justice Sueing went down for the season with an abdominal injury. Brown’s minutes became more important after back-up PG Meechie Johnson suffered a facial injury in practice, just before the January 13 game at Wisconsin. After missing three games, Johnson returned, wearing a protective mask. Then starting PG Jamari Wheeler went down with an ankle injury. Then, two weeks ago, Johnson rolled his ankle at Rutgers.
With Sueing and grad transfer Seth Towns both out for the season, the Buckeyes are the one B1G team that can argue with Illinois about who’s had the most roster fluctuation this year.
Theoretically, both Buckeye PGs are now healthy. Johnson played 18 minutes, and Wheeler 30 in the Buckeye’s 80-69 overtime win over Indiana on Monday, in Columbus.
Branham is the guard to watch. Underwood called him the B1G’s best pro-prospect, which satisfied the coach’s hyperbole quotient for yesterday’s press conference. But Branham’s scoring average has increased during B1G play (15 ppg), and he’s up to 46% from three on the season; so he’ll get the Trent Frazier treatment.
None of these people can guard Kofi Cockburn, but that wasn’t an issue when the Buckeyes won in Champaign last year. The Liddell pick n’ pop turned the tables on Illinois, which found its dominant low-post player … in the low post, while Liddell rained threes.
EJ is connecting on 39% of his arc shots this season. He’s connecting on Twitter at EasyE2432. It’s in the OSU pre-game notes.
The Buckeyes are a six point dog tonight, and that probably won’t change when betters find out about RJ Melendez’s emergency appendectomy.
Whether RJ could have helped against Liddell? Debatable. It’s nice to have an extra five fouls, but Underwood has pretty much stuck to a 9-man rotation, even though 12 guys are involved. (Nine play, while three DNP/CD per game.) That’s Luke Goode’s music you’re hearing.
And if Coleman Hawkins continues his aggressive defensive play, he might be just the problem Illinois needs to impose on Liddell.
But we’ll know the outcome when the Buckeyes take the court tonight. It’s Orange Out at SFC, which means the Illini will be wearing orange, perhaps the ’89 throwbacks?
If the Buckeyes dress in white, that means they’ll win. So let’s hope they don’t read Illini Report.